"Some people quit making records. They just don't care about it anymore. As long as they have their live stage show together, they don't need records. It was getting to that point for me. It was either come up with a bunch of songs that are original and pay attention to them or get some other real good songwriters to write me some songs...Everybody works in the shadow of what they've previously done. But you have to overcome that." Bob Dylan 1989
It is probably fair to say that "Oh Mercy," released in September 1989, was a welcome return to form for Bob Dylan after two poor studio albums (1986's "Knocked Out Loaded" and 1988's "Down In The Groove") and a dreadful live album (1989's "Dylan And The Dead"). This was due in no small part to the efforts of Daniel Lanois who was determined to force one good album out of Dylan before the eighties closed, and he succeeded as he would do eight years later with the brilliant "Time Out Of Mind." Lanois had an impressive track record, having worked with U2, Peter Gabriel, Robbie Robertson and the Neville Brothers and he used this experience to squeeze more out of Dylan than a lesser man would have done. He recognised the pitfalls of dealing with Dylan's notoriously sloppy method of recording "There came a time with Bob Dylan that I felt he fell into old habits..." he said, and requests for more session musicians were ignored with Lanois himself contributing to much of the album. The result was a cohesive album with a distinctive sound that sits like a minor masterpiece in Dylan's body of work, even with the omission of such superior songs as "Series Of Dreams" and "Dignity."
The opening track "Political World" sees Dylan in familiar territory, bemoaning the sad state of modern day society where everything has a price and nothing has a value. Eleven short, punchy verses all opening with the same straightforward line "We live in a political world..." but it has to be said that most of the observations are social rather than political. The song bounces along at a jaunty pace, but Dylan's voice was just starting to show the ravages that would become so apparent in later years. "Wisdom is thrown into jail" and "...mercy walks the plank" are typical Dylan comments, and "Life is in mirrors..." is one of his most recognisable and well used images. Even though I like this song, it's difficult to see what the point of it really is, it's nothing more than a nebulous collection of ideas that Dylan has gone over before, "As soon as you're awake, you're trained to take/What looks like the easy way out" lacks originality. Not wishing to be too critical, this is an easy and relatively undemanding way to begin the album, and it does get a lot better.
"Where Teardrops Fall" is a short but beautiful song in which Lanois' pedal steel compliments Dylan's gruff bark and gives the song a lovely country lilt (although I do have certain reservations about John Hart's sax solo at the end). Twin themes of supplication and rebirth are evident here, as Dylan revisits the "...pool of tears" from 1981's stunning "Every Grain Of Sand" and searches for sanctuary "Far away and over the wall." This is a much better song than most of the pseudo religiosity of that era, and we are offered a place to go that is "Far away from it all" where the truly penitent will be rewarded with "...love and kindness." The tears are not tears of sorrow "You can show me a new place to start" he says, and the ritualistic "I've torn my clothes and I've drained the cup" are evidence of this new beginning. If, as one would suspect, the theme of this song is spiritual rather than secular, then the final verse is perfect and Dylan even gets away with a cliché that would almost certainly fail in less able hands."Roses are red, violets are blue/And time is beginning to crawl/I just might have to come and see you/Where teardrops fall" he sings as he realizes that doors should never be completely closed.
"Everything Is Broken" is the type of song that Dylan has written often in the past, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. It is not a song to tax the brain powers of either the writer or the listener, listing as it does everything that is broken. Typical of Dylan's perversity in such matters is that this, the weakest song on the album, was considered for the title. On the up side, the vocal on this track is good, and we can always enjoy Dylan's harmonica playing, which is better than it has been for a long time (possibly due to Lanois' whip cracking). A far better approach to a similar theme is "Ring Them Bells," one of the best tracks on the album. There is a pessimism here that was becoming more prevalent in Dylan's writing "...the world's on its side/And time is running backwards" he tells us in this song that offers little in the way of hope. The third verse contains the wonderfully pastoral, biblical analogy "Oh, the shepherd is asleep/Where the willows weep/And the mountains are filled/With lost sheep" as Dylan anticipates judgement day "...for the chosen few/Who will judge the many when the game is through" and ponders the loss of innocence "For the child that cries/When innocence dies." But by far the most striking of the doom laden lyrics comes right at the end "...the fighting is strong/And they're breaking down the distance/Between right and wrong." One thing that this song proved was that if, as many thought that Dylan was a spent force lyrically, then he was back with a vengeance.
The menacing tone continues with "Man In The Long Black Coat" a song that was written hurriedly in the studio and recorded in one take. Dylan paints some wonderful images here, not least of which is the eponymous central character, and the paradox of "...Africa trees/Bent over backwards from a hurricane breeze" is quite striking. The faceless, nameless, black-coated figure (death?) is depicted as a fire and brimstone preacher of old "Somebody said from the Bible he'd quote/There was dust on the man/In the long black coat" and Dylan's hesitant delivery and mournful harmonica perfectly suit the sinister nature of the song. Clinton Heylin sees similarities between this and "House Carpenter" a traditional song that Dylan used to perform in his early coffee house days, but this is a much richer canvas. In his sermon the preacher tells us that "...every man's conscience is vile and depraved" and there is more than a hint of predestiny about the whole thing "There are no mistakes in life some people say" and "But people don't love or die, people just float." Again, the most ominous images are saved for the final verse "Tree trunks uprooted, 'neath the high crescent moon/Feel the pulse and vibration and the rumbling force/ Somebody is out there beating on a dead horse" all very apocalyptic. Dylan proved with this song, as with most on the album that he was still able to produce thoughtful and evocative lyrics.
This is particularly true of "Most Of The Time," a song that while not new in theme is given a whole new lease of life by Dylan's fresh approach. 10cc used this device for their 1975 pop song "I'm Not In Love" but here Dylan embarks on a world weary litany of all the things he is able to do without her, even not noticing that she's gone, before adding warily "Most of the time." There is always a danger with this type of song that we may find ourselves wallowing in self pity or drowning in mawkish sentimentality, but Dylan is too skilful a hand for that. He even manages to inject a modicum of wit into the proceedings "I can smile in the face of mankind" he says, and "Don't even remember what her lips felt like on mine" before adding the inevitable "Most of the time" It is only right at the end that he allows us a glimpse of his true feelings "...I don't run and hide/Hide from the feelings, that are buried inside" and when he sings "I don't even care if I ever see her again" we can allow ourselves a wry smile at his transparency.
"What Good Am I?" is a disarmingly frank and open soul-searching question of a song. It is not one that I take a great deal of pleasure in listening to, not because it is a bad song, but because it is uncomfortably personal. "If I shut myself off so I can't hear you cry/What good am I" asks Dylan in a song that is a catalogue of his emotional failings and relationship shortcomings. "If I turn a deaf ear to the thunderin' sky..." "And I freeze in the moment like the rest who don't try" are questions he asks of himself without ever coming up with an answer except perhaps to try and shift blame, but even that will not work "If my hands are tied must I not wonder within/Who tied them and why and where must I have been." This (thankfully) short song is as I say not easy to listen to, but it does deserve recognition.
On "Disease Of Conceit" Dylan comes close to preaching, which is a shame because the song does have merit both lyrically and musically. The key here is humility says Dylan while recognising the power of the disease; the use of the word "struggling" is interesting in the line "Whole lot of people struggling tonight/From the disease of conceit," as he seems to be giving it the same insidious nature as drug or alcohol dependency. This theme is continued with "Rips into your senses..." "Steps into your room..." and "Comes right out of nowhere..." until we get the assurance that the doctors are working on a cure, so far with little success. The danger of this conceit or pride or vanity (to place it as one of the seven deadly sins) he tells us is that it will give you "...delusions of grandeur/And an evil eye" but the ultimate price is that it will convince you that "You're too good to die" - this is a man speaking from experience. On balance, the album might have been better served by replacing this song with either "Dignity" or "Series Of Dreams" because of the similarity in theme between it and other tracks (notably "Political World" and "Everything Is Broken"). In fact, Lanois wanted "Series Of Dreams" included but was overruled.
Dylan plays a game with his audience on "What Was It You Wanted?" in which he sets up a one sided conversation as so often in the past, but this time he may well be asking us what we wanted from him. This is a beautifully understated song with some great harmonica playing by Dylan, and it works on both levels. Mistrust and betrayal are never far away when he is writing like this, and "What was it you wanted/When you were kissing my cheek?" has echoes of biblical duplicity, and "Someone there in the shadows/Someone I might have missed" continues the theme. There is a gentleness and a feeling of understanding in the presentation of this song, but it may well be to lull the listener into a false sense of security. The Dylan of "Ballad Of a Thin Man" or "Positively Fourth Street" would never have given us lines like "Whatever you wanted/Slipped my mind/Would you remind me again/If you'd be so kind," here he seems to be trying to understand the problem rather than attack it as a weakness. The open-ended framework of the song allows Dylan free rein with his word play, and in the sixth verse we do get a flash of the old put-down with the question "Who are you anyway?" and he ends the song with the casual and offhand "Are you talking to me?" that reminds us of the Dylan of old.
"Shooting Star" with its beautifully melodic intro and Dylan's world weary delivery and superior harmonica playing is possibly the finest track on the album. Our hero is musing on an old love, not with sadness but philosophically "I always kind of wondered/If you made it through/Seen a shooting star tonight/And I thought of you" and he ponders on what might have been "Did I miss the mark/Or overstep the line/That only you could see?" The third verse tends to miss the mark a little as Dylan goes off on a tangent and tries to cram too much in, but we are soon back on track and it is amazing how much emotion he manages to squeeze into the two words "Slip away." As he paraphrases a famous film heroine he considers this failed relationship "Tomorrow will be another day/Guess it's too late to say the things to you/That you needed to hear me say" and the moment is passed. A brief but vivid snapshot of a failed affair, the kind of thing that Dylan does so well, and the album is over.
When it was released in 1989 "Oh Mercy" became Dylan's best selling album since 1983's "Infidels" and although it didn't make the album charts it was listed in Rolling Stone's Best 100 albums of the Eighties (at #44). Rolling Stone said "While it would be unfair to compare "Oh Mercy" to Dylan's landmark sixties recordings, it sits well alongside his impressive body of work. It is also an encouraging sign that Dylan's creativity will continue to flourish in the coming decade." Daniel Lanois was happy with the album, he had achieved the "...Louisiana swamp sound" that he had been aiming for but still felt that it would have been improved by the inclusion of some of the tracks that were omitted (notably "Series Of Dreams"). Dylan's next album "Under The Red Sky" came quickly but was poorly received as were his two subsequent studio releases. In fact it would not be until 1997's "Time Out Of Mind" where he again brought in Lanois as producer that Dylan would release a critically acclaimed album. Dylan said of his producer "It would seem to me you'd need somebody...who could push you around a little bit. Daniel got me to do stuff that wouldn't have entered my mind."